Re-print Non-Policy and Publishing Law


The following was posted in the Comments section of Monday’s “Have They No Shame” entry. It speaks for itself. So, I hope, will my answer.

I consider it bad form, and a potential violation of copyright, to reprint complete articles on your Web site. While I appreciate the link to The Spokesman-Review, why would anyone click on it, as you have reprinted the entire letter to the editor?

Please, in the future, print only a summary of an article and link to the actual Web page.

Ken Sands [Spokane Spokesman-Review, um spokesman?–m]

“Bad form”? O dear o dear. Saints preserve us from “bad form”. Prep school grad, by any chance?

Well, Mr Sands, I consider it “bad form” to post a message such as this in the Comments section when a private email would have been far more appropriate. The fact that you put it there rather than in an email tends to mark it as a threat, and a threat aimed not just at me but at anyone who might do likewise. I am now forced to post my answer publicly in order to answer that perceived public threat.

I’m not sure why you consider it “bad form”; I have been a participant on numerous public bulletin boards for several years, and posting short pieces in their entirety is a common occurrence. One BBS sported a number of lawyers at one time and we had lively conversations concerning the subject of “internet law” which was–and is–brand new to everybody. We discussed various cases as they came up, the pros and cons of this or that fine point, the ramifications of this or that judgment, and so on. And not once was any legal concern expressed on the subject of posting articles except for giving appropriate credit to author and publisher.

Indeed, posting articles made us aware both of the work of writers we didn’t know and publications–such as yours–we’d never heard of. I found it broadening and enlightening, even edifying. It was in this way that I discovered publications like The Asia Times and writers like Jim Lobe and Robert Fiske. So I’m afraid I fail to understand what possible harm I could be doing to your publication in posting a letter as moving and timely as this one. I considered it a plus for you, as I think my dozen-or-so readers would.

Is this the reason? “While I appreciate the link to The Spokesman-Review, why would anyone click on it, as you have reprinted the entire letter to the editor?” They would click on it, Mr Sands, as I would and have, many times, to see what else of interest might be on the website of a paper I’ve never seen or even heard of. The normal reaction, Mr Sands, of curiosity: If they have this, what else do they have that I might want to know or read? It’s what people do. Ask your marketing dept how it works; they know. It’s what I did after reading Tom’s entry that day: I linked to your paper and browsed. It’s what I did after reading an article from The Oregonian that someone had posted (a paper I had likewise never heard of before that moment); I liked the article and I liked the paper and I still try to read it at least once a week.

As for the threat: I’m a writer, Mr Sands. Of necessity I’ve had to learn a good deal about copyright law. Are you a lawyer? If so, you must know that your position that there might be a “potential violation of copyright” is, in this case, at this time, bordering on the ridiculous. So far, when faced with the question of free speech vs. copyright infringement on the question of BBS and blog postings, the courts have tended toward the Fair Use Doctrine. Which is to say, they have backed the right of people on the internet to share information and publicly available material provided that there is proper attribution of author and publisher.

While the recent cases (which I believe will not stand) concerning the music industry may suggest that in that area, at least, the courts are moving in a different direction, no move whatever of that kind has been made in the direction of blogs and BBS’, and for a very good reason: what we post is made publicly available by the copyright owners at other sites on the net. This is not the case with most music file-sharing systems, as you well know. As there is no copyright infringement from copying a newspaper article on a copier and then handing out the copies, there can be no copyright infringement in posting publicly a copy of a publicly available article–an article made publicly available by its owners–as long as proper attribution is made.

As I said in the entry immediately before “Have They No Shame?*, I don’t intend to make a practice of posting whole pieces. However, until and unless the courts say otherwise, I will continue to post entire articles when and as I think such posting is justified.

However, I don’t want to be unreasonable, so I am prepared to promise you that from here on out I will ignore the Spokane Spokesman-Review completely. I will not quote nor will I link to any article in any edition of your paper ever again. As I said, I have read your online version, and having read it I think I can say without hesitation that ignoring you will not work a hardship on either me or my writing.

Have a nice day.

PS. One final note: if newspapers are going to try to control the dissemination of material they publish in the way that the music industry is trying to do, they’re going to wind up cutting their own throats. It’s a potential PR disaster. The music industry is becoming hated and scorned for its overarching greed–suing a 12-year-old for $2000 seem like a PR Bonanza to you?–and is currently sowing the seeds of its own destruction. It will have to back off pretty soon or take its place in the pantheon of hated professions like lawyers and used-car salesmen. Is that really the direction you want to go?

Think about it.

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